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Greg Kaufmann | The Nation

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Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

This Week in Poverty: Signing Off

Homeless

(AP Photo/Adam Nadel)

Nearly two years ago, TheNation.com launched This Week in Poverty as a way to keep the issue of poverty—and what we can do about it—front and center for our readers.

We felt that poverty was largely ignored by the mainstream media, with the exception of every September, when the new Census Bureau statistics were published. In contrast, as the oldest political weekly magazine in the country—founded by abolitionists in 1865—The Nation has poverty coverage in its DNA. It’s been a great privilege to be a part of that coverage on a weekly basis.

Today marks my last This Week in Poverty post. I’m going to spend more of my time working with local, state and national organizations engaged in the fight against poverty. I look forward to continuing to contribute to The Nation as well as to BillMoyers.com, which has also been so supportive of this blog.

For me, spending more time in the field, and having the freedom to engage strategically with activists, feels like a natural progression of my work at The Nation. The more I have spoken with people who are struggling in poverty, or with workers trying to survive on low wages; the more I have been alarmed by Republicans, and disillusioned with Democrats; the more I have been impressed with the activists, thinkers, and advocates fighting for good policy and stronger communities, while also searching for new approaches to that fight… the more I’ve wanted to get involved as an activist myself.

TheNation.com created this blog with the notion that it simply isn’t true that we don’t know what to do to turn the tide in the fight against poverty—that there are many progressive organizations and, most importantly, people living in poverty themselves, offering solutions that are there for the taking and that need to be heard.

My friend and editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and I share a deep respect for the people who are doing this work, and that was also a key motive for creating this blog: we need to recognize people and groups for their good ideas, and their hard work, much of which is done in relative anonymity. And of course, it was a glaring weakness in most media coverage of poverty that the stories rarely engaged with people who are actually living in poverty themselves. As we headed into the presidential campaign last year, this absence was even more glaring.

I think one of the best moments for this blog and what its readers could accomplish was TheNation.com’s #TalkPoverty effort during the presidential campaign, which was developed in collaboration with senior editor Emily Douglas and community editor Annie Shields.

We interviewed advocates (here, here, here, and here) and people living in or near poverty, providing them with an opportunity to pose direct questions to President Obama and Governor Romney. It was an effort to push a constructive conversation about poverty into the presidential debate. Little did we know that so many groups and individuals would adopt the campaign as their own, trying to get the moderators of three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate to ask at least a single question about poverty (which the moderators failed to do). In the end, the Obama campaign responded to This Week in Poverty, and #TalkPoverty still thrives on Twitter today as a way to share information and promote action.

It’s my hope now that we will aggressively move beyond talk to organizing and taking action to push for known solutions. I believe that we will not see the kind of change we seek without a movement that is visible, constant, and disruptive, as we have witnessed with the recent immigration reform and marriage equality movements.

The conditions for an antipoverty movement now exist: when more than one in three Americans are living below twice the poverty line (below about $36,500 for a family of three)—unable to pay for the basics like food, housing, healthcare, education, and unable to save—something’s got to give. When 95 percent of the economic gains are going to the top 1 percent, and more than 60 percent to the top .1 percent—the potential is there to unite the majority of people who are being denied an opportunity to get ahead.

So my hope as we close out this blog is the same as it was when we launched it—that readers will get involved in the fight against poverty, and work and push, and work and push, and work and push some more, until we get where we need to go.

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Below is a list of organizations whose work I’ve had the privilege to get to know over the past two years. If you keep up with these groups, sign up for their updates, you will know more about poverty and what we can do about it than the vast majority of members of Congress or your state and local representatives do, and you will find opportunities to get involved. You can also share your own ideas with these groups about how we can build a strong movement—and I know you have great ideas. I know it because the most unexpected thing of all about this blog was the number of people who started e-mailing me about what needed to be covered. Your passion and ideas helped shape This Week in Poverty in significant ways over the past two years, and I thank you for that.

I hope you will keep in touch—I’m still writing—but most importantly I hope you will get involved and fight hard.

Children, Parents and Families

Broader, Bolder Approach to Education

Children’s Defense Fund

Children’s HealthWatch

First Focus

Legal Momentum

Mary House

Mary’s Center

National Partnership for Women and Families

National Women’s Law Center

Healthcare, Disability and Aging

The Arc

Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Social Security Task Force

National Council on Aging

National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives

Housing and Homelessness

Care for the Homeless

Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness

Home Defenders League

National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

National Low Income Housing Coalition

Occupy Our Homes

Pathways to Housing

Hunger

Center for Hunger-Free Communities/Witnesses to Hunger

Food Research and Action Center

Mazon

New York City Coalition Against Hunger

Share Our Strength

Justice and Courts

Center for Court Innovation

Race and Civil Rights

Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

Poverty & Race Research Action Council

Research

Center for American Progress

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities


Center for Economic and Policy Research

Demos

Economic Policy Institute

National Employment Law Project

Urban Institute: MetroTrends

Workers’ Rights

Caring Across Generations

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Interfaith Worker Justice

Jobs with Justice

Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United

Multi-issue Groups

Alliance for a Just Society

Campaign for America’s Future

Center for Community Change

Center for Law and Social Policy

Center for Social Inclusion

Coalition on Human Needs


Community Action Partnership

Half In Ten

Jewish Council for Public Affairs

Kansas Association of Community Action Programs

LIFT

National Council of La Raza

National Nurses United

NETWORK

PolicyLink

Progressive States Network

RESULTS

The Rural Assistance Center

Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law

Western Center on Law & Poverty

Greg Kaufmann challenged democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow's support for cuts to food stamp funding.

Why Is a Senate Democrat Agreeing to Another $8 Billion in Food Stamp Cuts?

Senator Debbie Stabenow

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, listens to testimony from witnesses in hearings in 2012 (Reuters/Gary Cameron). 

On the same day that President Obama eloquently described his vision of an economy defined by economic mobility and opportunity for all, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow was busy cutting a deal with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas to slice another $8 to $9 billion from food stamps (SNAP), according to a source close to the negotiations.

“One study shows that more than half of Americans will experience poverty at some point during their adult lives,” said President Obama. “Think about that. This is not an isolated situation.… That’s why we have nutrition assistance or the program known as SNAP, because it makes a difference for a mother who’s working, but is just having a hard time putting food on the table for her kids.”

Indeed it does, but the chairwoman consistently fails to get the memo.

There are currently 47 million Americans who turn to food stamps to help make ends meet. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly 72 percent are in families with children; and one-quarter of SNAP participants are in households with seniors or people with disabilities. Further, 91 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes below the poverty line, and 55 percent to households below half of the poverty line (about $9,500 annually for a family of three).

Despite the fact that the Institute of Medicine demonstrated the inadequacy of the SNAP benefit allotment, and that a child’s access to food stamps has a positive impact on adult outcomes, the program was just cut by $5 billion on November 1. The average benefit dropped from $1.50 to $1.40 per meal. The Senate Agriculture Committee’s previous proposal to cut yet another $4 billion from SNAP would have led to 500,000 losing $90 per month in benefits, the equivalent of one week’s worth of meals.

“That was the first time in history that a Democratic-controlled Senate had even proposed cutting the SNAP program,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “The willingness of some Senate Democrats to double new cuts to the program…is unthinkable.”

The president recognized in a very personal way the need for a SNAP program that protects families from severe hardship.

“When my father left and my mom hit hard times trying to raise my sister and me while she was going to school, this country helped make sure we didn’t go hungry,” he said.

In contrast, Berg tells of a mother he recently met who now sees this country turning away from her and her children.

“I recently met a mother of two, trying to advance herself and her family, by working her way through college,” said Berg. “After November 1st, she lost $46 worth of groceries a month, which equals at least thirty fewer meals for her family.”

It seems she and her kids are about to absorb another hit.

“These SNAP cuts will be devastating to families across the nation,” said Dr. Mariana Chilton, co-principal investigator of Children’s HealthWatch, a research organization analyzing the effects of economic conditions and public policy on children in emergency rooms and clinics around the country. “Not only will families lose significant SNAP dollars—which will make it harder for them to feed their kids and also reduce their children’s nutrient intakes—but it will also cause major health problems for children, increased hospitalizations for very young kids, and greater need for psychosocial and mental health services for school aged kids.”

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President Obama perfectly captured what it means for this country to turn its back on children.

“The idea that a child may never be able to escape poverty because she lacks a decent education or healthcare, or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us and it should compel us to action,” said President Obama.

We are the community, and it is offensive. Now is the time to tell the president: if these cuts land on his desk, he must veto the bill.

Update, December 7, 3:39pm: Senator Stabenow's office did not initially respond to a request for comment, but have replied to this post. Their statement:

Senator Stabenow strongly opposes any changes to food assistance that make cuts in benefits for people who need help putting food on the table for their families. She has been the number one defender against the House Republican proposal to cut food assistance by $40 billion, including rule changes that would throw four million people off of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) altogether.

Unlike the House proposal, the Senate Farm Bill protects critical food assistance for the over 47 million Americans who need help. The Senate bill saves $4 billion solely through ending program misuse—like stopping lottery winners from continuing to receive assistance, cracking down on retailer benefit trafficking, and curbing the misuse of a LIHEAP paper work policy by a small number of states. It is very important that we continue to maintain the integrity of these critical food assistance programs so that opponents cannot use rare examples of misuse as arguments for gutting assistance to children, families, seniors and disabled Americans.

While no final agreement has been reached, Senator Stabenow will not support any policies that arbitrarily remove people in need from SNAP or make across-the-board cuts to benefits. She will only support savings focused on program misuse.

 

Update, December 9, 11:31am: Response from Greg Kaufmann:

I think many anti-hunger advocates would disagree with the notion that the Chairwoman has been “the number one defender” against the draconian SNAP cuts proposed by House Republicans.  Representatives Jim McGovern, Barbara Lee, John Conyers, and Marcia Fudge come to mind, as does Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.  They not only defend against Republican cuts, but also try to strengthen benefits at a time when nearly 50 million Americans aren’t necessarily sure where their next meal is coming from.  

It is true that Senator Stabenow has spoken clearly in her opposition to the extreme cuts and rule changes in the House Republican proposal.  But that’s hardly a reason to claim bragging rights—it would be like a WNBA player boasting that she can whup any Junior High School player in a game of one-on-one.

The statement that $4 billion (of the more than $8 billion in SNAP cuts agreed to in current negotiations) is found through cracking down on lottery winners, retailer benefit trafficking, and addressing “misuse” of the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) seems misleading.  The amount of SNAP benefits misspent due to fraud by lottery winners and retailers is negligible, and of course everyone supports vigilance to protect the integrity of the program.

But the bulk of the $4 billion in cuts alluded to here—and the other $4 billion-plus agreed to in negotiations—is found through a change to the rule that currently allows families receiving SNAP assistance to qualify for additional benefits if they receive LIHEAP assistance to help with their utility bills.  (If a state’s governor opts in to what is called the “heat and eat” program.)  The heat and eat program—which boosts SNAP benefits for families receiving utility assistance—is based on the recognition that too many Americans are choosing between paying for food or paying for energy.  Some states sign families up for $1 in heating assistance so that they then qualify for the additional food stamp benefits, decreasing the likelihood that they will face the “heat or eat” dilemma.  According to Politico, the agreement between Senator Stabenow and Republican leaders would require $20 in LIHEAP assistance in order to receive additional SNAP benefits.  That change would result in up to $8 billion in SNAP cuts.  Currently, roughly 20 percent of eligible households receive LIHEAP, so there is little reason to believe that most states would step up to meet the $20 threshold for people who need it.

While Senator Stabenow might not be in a position to defend the $1 work around that helps get families the assistance they need, she surely is in a position to explain why both Democratic and Republican Governors alike are looking to obtain additional benefits for families that qualify for food stamps, and why we need to be increasing, not decreasing, those benefits. 

The Chairwoman might remind the country that the average benefit is $1.40 per meal for an individual.  She might point to the report by the Institute of Medicine that clearly describes the inadequacy of food stamp benefits: from the way a family’s net monthly income is calculated by using a standard shelter deduction capped at $478; to the assumption that low-wage workers with erratic schedules will have time to cook unprocessed ingredients from scratch, as well as access supermarkets that offer a variety of healthy foods at lower costs in urban and rural areas.  The Chairwoman might tell America that the SNAP program assumes food prices are consistent no matter where one lives in the nation.  She might point to the millions of families that include children with special health care needs—families not permitted to deduct their out-of-pocket health care costs to calculate their net income. She might draw attention to USDA testimony—all the way back in 1933—that the theoretical “Thrifty Food Plan” currently used in the SNAP program to determine a nutritious diet at minimal cost is for “restricted diets for emergency use,” and that “a reasonable measure of basic needs for a good diet… should be as high as the cost of the low-cost food plan” which would result in more generous food stamp benefit levels.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the staff asserts that the Senator “strongly opposes any changes to food assistance that make cuts in benefits for people who need help putting food on the table for their families.”  But the fact is that the proposed changes would indeed cut benefits for people who need help putting food on the table.  As the Food Research and Action Center writes, “Bottom line, elimination of ‘Heat and Eat’ means lost meals for elderly and disabled households.”

The Chairwoman is in a position to educate the country about how the SNAP program really works, and how it could and should be made better.  If raising benefits through LIHEAP isn’t the right avenue, then she and her fellow-Democrats should suggest the myriad of reforms that would more accurately measure the existing need of hungry families in this country and would consequently raise their benefit levels.

The point isn’t that Republicans would never go for those reforms.  The point is to speak the truth to the American people, shatter the myths and end the misinformation, and make the Republicans defend policies that are indefensible.

Update, December 9, 11:31am:  Response from Joel Berg, executive director, New York City Coalition Against Hunger:

In the year 2000, as a private citizen on vacation time, I volunteered for a week in Grand Rapids, Michigan to help elect Debbie Stabenow to the United States Senate. That is why it is particularly painful to me that not only is she playing a key role in cutting nutrition assistance for struggling families, but she also is not being straightforward with the public about the impact of the policies she is promoting.

Virtually all advocates—myself included—agree with her efforts to stop lottery winners from continuing to receive assistance and to crack down on retailer benefit trafficking.  But given how rare lottery winners and retailer fraud are, those changes are mostly cosmetic and have nothing to do with the more than $8 billion in nutrition cuts that she is proposing.

The third provision she is proposing—the one that would cut all the money—would eliminate a current feature of the SNAP program that now allows governors in 14 different states, of both political parties, to better combine home energy assistance with SNAP benefits in order to boost food aid to some of the hardest-hit families. Every single penny Senator Stabenow is proposing to take out of SNAP would come directly out of the grocery baskets of families that are very low-income and are currently eligible for the benefits.

It is important to again note that the $5 billion in SNAP cuts which went into effect on November 1 were also enabled by Senate Democrats. Senator Stabenow’s contention that she must advance massive additional cuts of more than $8 billion—as the only possible way to forestall even more massive cuts proposed by the GOP—is misleading as well. As Chair of the Agriculture Committee, she has it well within her power to propose a Farm Bill with no additional SNAP cuts whatsoever.  The House Republicans have no legal ability to pass additional cuts unless the Senate Democrats and President Obama consent to such cuts.  The Democrats should join together in scrapping this horrible bill that slashes food for struggling families while boosting corporate welfare, and instead start from scratch with a brand new farm bill that aids small to mid-sized family farmers, slashes hunger, and boosts rural economic development.

Update, December 9, 11:31am: Response from Dr. Mariana Chilton, PhD, MPH, Director, Center for Hunger-Free Communities, Drexel University School of Public Health:

When Senate Ag leadership likens the cuts to SNAP as “savings” that curb “misuse of a LIHEAP paperwork policy,” we can see that they do not fully grasp the way that American families experience hunger and food insecurity.

Families don’t go hungry in a vacuum.  Families make terrible tradeoffs- between paying for heat or paying to eat.  The women of Witnesses to Hunger—who use their photography and stories to describe their experiences with hunger and poverty—can tell you that first hand.  Jill Shaw, a Member of Witnesses to Hunger from Central Pennsylvania shows a picture of her stove, and writes:  “I am a witnesses to hunger everyday.  I am a witness to the disappointment in my children’s eyes when they tell me they are hungry and I tell them there’s no food.  My stove is a source of heat more than it is a source for cooking food.” To learn more about housing and utilities and how they relate to hunger, just take a brief tour here of America’s reality in Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Camden NJ. If you want this in cold hard numbers instead of pictures and experiences, see our Children’s HealthWatch research.

Those of us on the ground: pediatricians, public health researchers, social services providers, and the true experts—those who know hunger and poverty first hand—recognize that the forward thinking states have attempted to prevent the worst of hunger and the worst of frigid mornings.  The states that utilize the heat and eat provision, are actually improving our current income support systems, because they are calculating the amount of SNAP benefits needed when one considers the true cost of shelter. To learn more about this, check out the Congressional Research Service explanation.

This LIHEAP provision is a protection for families based in a cold hard reality: food insecurity is a form of hardship based on trading off costs of basic needs. It’s a smart work around that ought to be scaled up across the country, not slashed as a technical expediency.  If there were really forward thinking change coming out of the Senate and House, the SNAP benefit calculation would be based on the true cost of shelter regardlessof whether or not a family receives LIHEAP.  It’s a frigid wake-up indeed, to see these proposed cuts.  Some have said that the House GOP is out of touch with low-income America, but sometimes it seems as if all of our leaders are out of touch.

Editor's Note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this headline suggested that Stabenow was pushing for the cuts to food stamps.

Last week, Greg Kaufmann wrote about the need for a shared agenda to combat poverty.

This Week in Poverty: Anti-Poverty Leaders Discuss the Need for a Shared Agenda

Girl food insecurity

(Courtesy of Flikr user Steven Depolo, CC 2.0)

I get it, we need to play defense.

There are 50 million people who are food insecure—meaning they can’t meet their basic food needs and don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from—and yet both Democrats and Republicans are debating how much more to cut from a food stamp program that was already cut on November 1 and now has an average benefit of only $1.40 per meal…

We need to play defense.

At a time when the economy needs to add 8.3 million jobs just to return to pre-recession employment levels—and sequestration will result in the loss of nearly 1 million more jobs by the third quarter of 2014…

We need to play defense.

At a time when we have reached crisis levels of poverty for children of color under age 5—more than 42 percent of African-American children and 37 percent of Latino children under age 5 live below the poverty line of $18,300 annually for a family of three—and sequestration has resulted in more than 57,000 children being kicked out of Head Start classrooms…

We need to play defense.

At a time when there are record levels of homeless students in US public schools—nearly 1.2 million in the 2011–12 school year—and sequestration will result in as many as 185,000 low-income families losing housing assistance by the end of 2014…

We clearly need to play defense.

But then there is also this: anger, frustration, worry, rage, sadness and despair across the nation. It’s combustible. Ninety-five percent of the recovery gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent, 60 percent have gone to the top .1 percent who earn more than $1.9 million annually. That doesn’t leave much for anyone else to get ahead.

So isn’t this actually the perfect moment for the anti-poverty community to pivot to offense? To rally around a tight, shared vision—one that appeals to people living in poverty or near poverty, and to the middle class?

In January of this year, I proposed an anti-poverty contract to unite groups around the minimum wage, paid leave, affordable childcare, subsidized jobs/TANF reform and ending childhood hunger. I shared the contract with advocates in DC and outside of the nation’s capital as well. The reaction? Roll soundtrack: crickets chirping (with a few notable exceptions).

As we approach the new year, I still think advocates are too segregated from one another, working on their specific issues, rather than increasing their power and numbers by coming together around a shared vision with popular appeal.

So I again sent some great leaders in the anti-poverty community a scaled back version of my previous proposal, asking whether they thought organizations could and should unite around three or so core issues. For purposes of discussion I proposed:

Raise the minimum wage: no one in America should work full-time, or two or even three part-time jobs, and still be stuck in poverty. Historically, a full-time worker earning the minimum wage could lift a family of three out of poverty. The Harkin-Miller proposal of a $10.10 per hour minimum wage would return us to that standard. (It also would raise the tipped minimum wage—stuck at $2.13 per hour for more than twenty years—to 70 percent of the minimum wage.)

Paid sick and family leave: nobody in this country should have to choose between a paycheck and caring for themselves or a sick family member, and yet only 34 percent of low-wage workers had access to paid sick leave in 2013.

Affordable, quality childcare: it’s tough to go to work and get ahead when there isn’t a safe, affordable place to take your kids for childcare, and yet childcare assistance policies worsened in twenty-four states in 2012. The average annual fee for full-time childcare ranges from $3,900 to $15,000.

The advocates I reached out to include: Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a catholic social justice lobby; Dr. Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, which includes the Witnesses to Hunger project; Steve Savner, director of public policy for the Center for Community Change; Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs; Melissa Boteach, director of Half in Ten and the Poverty and Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress; and Jessica Bartholow, legislative advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

Here are some of the insights they offered and common themes that emerged from our conversations:

There is a need for a shared agenda among advocacy organizations.

Sister Simone Campbell: I’ve been thinking how Speaker John Boehner is not a leader for the twenty-first century. And it got me thinking, ‘What are we doing for the twenty-first century?’ NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus is like a lightning rod for hope and opportunity. That experience for me touched the hunger for community—and there’s a hunger for community not just for folks around the country—but also for those of us who do advocacy in DC.

Dr. Mariana Chilton: Housing groups and hunger groups, labor and immigrants rights groups, childcare groups and education groups—we need to all be talking and all have the same platform. We are too caught up in our own talking points for our own particular issues, and what that does is, ultimately, it chops up regular human beings—we’ve got to pull together as regular human beings, to humanize the issues of poverty, and hunger, and injustice.

Steve Savner: We agree with the idea that we need a small set of key demands that will connect with people in meaningful way. Since no three things will address all of the issues that folks face, the fight on some core demands also needs to connect to a broader vision and narrative about economic justice and eliminating poverty that allows us to build more power as we go from one fight to the next.

Jessica Bartholow: The best efforts to thwart austerity measures will not work unless there is a strong coalition that knows not only what it doesn’t want but what it does want, and that can unite across fissures in coalition and movement building to achieve that. We need to articulate a vision that is simple enough and urgent enough to build momentum in a short period of time, while conceding the need to go much farther with shared work on other issues down the road.

Melissa Boteach: While we definitely have to continue to defend the critical safety net programs under attack, we know we’re not going to reach Half in Ten’s goal of cutting poverty in half from a crouched, defensive posture. Anti-poverty advocates have got to come together and press for an agenda that speaks to the pressing task of rebuilding the middle class, and creating ladders of opportunity so that more people can reach the middle class.

Which issues should be selected and how should they be determined?

Savner: Folks here don’t feel like we are at a place to name the most resonant demands absent, at least for us, more testing on the ground directly in low income communities—both as to content and how to engage a lot more people in the fight. The broader vision behind the demands you name feels right, a decent job that pays fairly and a system that doesn’t force people to choose between a good job and a safe and healthy family. One more element I’d say the vision needs to address is the right to a decent jobs for all who seek them and fair access for those who are struggling to succeed in the labor market, such as people returning home from jail or prison, or who have been excluded from certain industries and occupations, most importantly women and people of color.

Chilton: The people are missing from this idea. If we all just get around these three issues it will just be a little sign-on thing that’s just going to fizzle out, unless you have people who are poor running the show. If it’s just words, ‘we hereby decree,’ it’s not going to get anywhere. The movement can be facilitated by the NGOs and non-profits, but it’s going to have to be the people who are poor that are supposedly represented by these organizations who need to be out front. Also, while I personally like this idea of having a simplified message: minimum wage, paid leave, and childcare as three top-ticket items, there’s a fourth ticket, and that’s people who are low-wage workers need to rise up, and it needs to get beyond the fast food industry and WalMart. People who are on SNAP benefits and working need to protest. And we need to join them.

Deborah Weinstein: It would be interesting to see if we could get broad support for a narrow positive agenda, and if so, what would it include? For me, minimum wage and paid sick leave are two easy choices. If there’s a third, it’s less obvious to me what [it] should be. Increasing the amount of the SNAP food benefit? A renter’s credit (refundable) combined with transforming the home mortgage interest deduction to a credit—which would save money by reducing the huge amounts going to the highest income homeowners? More childcare, perhaps combined with universal pre-k? Immigration reform?

Sr. Simone: I like the idea that we could focus on some key principles and make it proactive—but not as an adversarial scold—but as ‘We the People are better than this.’ And ‘work needs to pay.’ While we need to keep nudging at specific issues, there’s a much bigger hunger to get the community together, to recover ‘We the People…’ If we put the specific issues in that bigger context—they kind of hang together for the benefit of the 100 percent, for everybody. But we have to put it in the communal context without fear of each other.

Boteach: Grassroots partners are already calling for an end to the politics of austerity. To set the positive vision, low-income people have to be leaders in shaping and organizing around the unified agenda, but clearly a few wins on policies that have widespread appeal could make an enormous difference for low-income families. Raising the minimum wage commands strong public support across party lines—we just need to make sure members of Congress get the memo. Paid family leave and investments in childcare and pre-K would not just cut poverty; they’d help families of all income levels balance breadwinning and caregiving.

Bartholow: I read your blog calling for a national contract for shared prosperity on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. That night, I stayed up laying out the policy asks that had surfaced through coalition work I have been engaged in. In California, we have finally been able to move from a decade of simply defending against cuts to articulating our shared vision for a vibrant, inclusive economy. New alliances have formed between women, immigrants, the working poor, people without homes, people formerly incarcerated, food stamp recipients, labor union members, college students, youth and others. So I shared my draft not only with these communities and organizations I work with, but with colleagues in other states and people working at the national level. Each conversation surfaced new insights, confirmed the need for an organizing vehicle like this, and raised very good—and still somewhat unanswered—questions about the long-term goals of the organizing effort. We hope to roll out our National Call to Action soon.

What would this movement look like if it were to be effective?

Chilton: I think it takes a march—and it has to be massive, bigger than the number of people who showed up for President Obama’s inauguration. It has to show that we are fed up. Then we could signal to the rest of the country that there are many of us just like you that are fed up—join us. I think people are waiting for something massive, for something like a familiar social movement. Something a little different from Occupy Wall Street—something that makes people head to DC with something like a banner of three key demands. Something that really includes and speaks to families with children. But who are the ones that could pull it together?  Is it the Community Action people?  Is it MomsRising? The labor movement? Who has the people to make it happen—to get the buses going and to roll with it?

Bartholow: Our Call to Action is designed to be an ongoing, relentless campaign informed, inspired and driven by the experiences of the people who are most impacted by stagnant poverty and historic levels of inequality. It will hopefully broaden the anti-poverty community through a time-sensitive, narrowly drawn campaign that supports active federal legislation.

Boteach: If this were to happen, it would mean that there has finally been a realization that the interests of low- and middle-income Americans are aligned. That’s the way we will achieve a broad-based movement. We are committed to working with our partners to make the case, build the power, and hold our leaders accountable to enact policies that cut poverty and rebuild the middle class.

Savner: At the Center for Community Change, we are indeed trying to build a nationwide movement against poverty. The core issue is jobs: making sure that good jobs are available and accessible to everyone. We will start at the local and state level, working with grassroots groups to win breakthroughs and redefine the possible. We’ll support massive new organizing among low-income people, build coalitions at both the state and national level, communicate the problems and the solutions, and working with others, we will make sure that good jobs for all—as a way to address poverty—is a central agenda for politicians who are running for office.

Sr. Simone: If this effort were successful we would know that we have each other’s backs. We would not need to be afraid of being left out…. We can make this happen if we try.

What do you think? Please comment below or email me at weekinpoverty@me.com

Get involved

The Time is Now: Tell Congress to Protect SNAP

Find a protest at a Walmart near you

Take Action: Urge Your Senators to Raise the Minimum Wage

Publix: Join the Fair Food Movement

Strong Start for America’s Children Act

War on Poverty Storyteller Contest

A Tale of Two Thanksgivings

Events

Getting Back to Full Employment with Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein (Tonight, November 25, 6:30–8 pm, Busboys and Poets’ Cullen Room, 5th and K Streets NW DC)

Roundtable on the Promotion of Health Equity and the Elimination of Health Disparities (Thursday, December 5, 8 am Pacific, Beckman Center, Irvine, California) The Institute of Medicine will hold a workshop exploring the history of social movements for lessons and strategies that could inform contemporary efforts to improve the health and well-being of all communities. The workshop will be webcast live.

Witnesses to Hunger 5-Year Anniversary Exhibit & Reception (Wednesday, December 11, 6–9 pm, Drexel University’s Bossone Research Center, First Floor Lobby and Mitchell Auditorium, 3140 Market Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) In 2008, a group of women from North Philadelphia were given cameras to take pictures and speak out about their firsthand experiences with hunger and poverty for a project known as Witnesses to Hunger. Today, there are more than eighty Witnesses in sites from Boston to Baltimore. Join them for a night of reflection, celebration and action.

Clips and other resources

Native Americans Are Less Likely to Be Employed Than Whites in Nearly Every State,” Algernon Austin

Paul Ryan, Poverty Warrior? Huh?,” Jared Bernstein

Getting Back to Full Employment: A Better Bargain for Working People,” Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker

Inside The Death Of A D.C. Public School,” Kavitha Cardoza

Actually, the Fed Can Do Something (Lots, Even) About Inequality,” Josh Bivens

Inequality Is (Literally) Killing America,” Zoë Carpenter

Justice Center Helps Reduce Crime and Incarceration in Brooklyn,” Center for Court Innovation

Infographic: The School-Readiness Gap,” CAP Early Childhood Team

We Have Skilled Construction Workers−They Need Jobs,” Ross Eisenbrey

As I See It—Declaring a new war on poverty,” William Elliott III

Gathering insights from Native American communities,” Lionel Foster

Congress Must Not Break 40-Year Commitment to Let WIC Provide Most Nutritious Food,” Robert Greenstein

Child poverty remains high while spending on children falls,” Julie Isaacs

Expanding Social Security,” Paul Krugman

The Long-Term Unemployment Trap Could Get Worse,” John Light

In rural Kentucky, health-care debate takes back seat as the long-uninsured line up,” Stephanie McCrummen

Education for Homeless Children and Youths Program Data Collection Summary,” National Center for Homeless Education

Healthy Relationships, Employment and Reentry,” National Transitional Jobs Network

There is not enough affordable rental housing,” Erika Poethig

Access to Healthy Food and Why It Matters: A Review of the Research,” PolicyLink and The Food Trust

SNAP Costs Leveling Off, Almost Certain to Fall Next Year,” Dorothy Rosenbaum

Focus of US Fiscal Policy Must Shift Back to Full Employment,” William Spriggs

The Detroit Bankruptcy,” Wallace Turbeville

Breaking Bread to Build a Movement: Harnessing Philanthropy’s Power to Convene,” Luz Vega-Marquis

Why We Raise Up Massachusetts

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Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $23,492 for a family of four): 46.5 million people, 15 percent.

African American poverty rate: 27.2 percent.

Hispanic poverty rate: 25.6 percent.

White poverty rate: 9.7 percent.

People with disabilities: 28 percent.

Poorest age group: children, 34.6 percent of all people in poverty are children.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 21.8 percent, including 38 percent of African-American children, 34 percent of Latino children and 12 percent of white children.

Poverty rate among families with children headed by single mothers: 40.9 percent.

Gender gap: Women 31 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Deep poverty (less than $9,142 for a family of three): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, nearly 10 percent of all children, up from 12.6 million in 2000—an increase of 59 percent.

Homeless students in K-12 public schools: 1.2 million.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, approximately one in three Americans.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Federal minimum wage: $7.25 ($2.13 for tipped workers).

Federal minimum wage if indexed to inflation since 1968: $10.59.

Federal minimum wage if it kept pace with productivity gains: $18.72.

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2012: 25 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2011: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Number of people 65 or older kept out of poverty by Social Security: 15.3 million, including 9 million women.

This Week in Poverty posts again at Moyers & Company. You can e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.

Five community members met with Congressional leaders to discuss the dire implications of cuts to food stamp spending.

Witnesses to Hunger (and Poverty) on the Hill

SNAP meeting

Nia Timmons was stressed.

A mother of three, she works full-time as an assistant teacher at a pre-K program in Camden, New Jersey where she earns $12 per hour. By the second week of November, she still hadn’t received her family’s food stamp (SNAP) benefits and she didn’t know why. She thought it might be due to the SNAP cut on November 1 that hit 48 million people, including 22 million children, but she couldn’t get any answers from the Camden Board of Social Services.

“I’ve not heard from anyone there, and I can’t reach anyone either,” said Timmons.

She told me her story in a coffee shop in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building last week. She had traveled to Capitol Hill along with four of her “Witnesses to Hunger sisters” from Camden, Philadelphia and Boston to speak with Members of Congress about the impact their policy decisions are having on people who live in poverty. Witnesses to Hunger is a project of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at the Drexel University School of Public Health. Participants are mothers and caregivers of young children who use photography and testimonials to document their experiences and advocate for change at the local, state, and federal levels. There are more than eighty Witnesses in various cities on the East Coast.

Timmons and Anisa Davis—also from Camden—shared their experiences with staffers for their representatives, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and Democratic Congressman Robert Andrews. The other Witnesses met with legislative aides for their respective Senators and Representatives too. They also stopped by the offices of Republicans on the Farm Bill conference committee, including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas and Florida Congressman Steve Southerland. All of the Witnesses met directly with Democratic Congressmen Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, and with Kellie Adesina, legislative director for Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge.

I was invited to sit in on the meeting with Adesina.

Quanda Burrell, a mother of two from Boston, told her story of being just one semester shy of her teacher’s assistant degree when she was informed that her Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance would run out in two weeks. Her caseworker said she needed to drop out of school and enter a “career readiness program” in order to continue to receive assistance. The Witnesses say these programs often lead to no jobs, or dead-end jobs, and are frequently run by for-profit companies.

Burrell felt she was forced to choose between feeding her family in the immediate term or staying in school so she could attain a stable income in the very near future. She dropped out. But the extension of TANF assistance turned out to be just for two months, and so her only current income is a small stipend she receives for work for Thrive in Five, which promotes early childhood education in Boston. She can’t afford to re-enroll in school and now her rent is due.

“It affects you mentally, emotionally, physically—it drains you,” said Burrell. “You have to hide it from your children. You gotta pretend like you’re not struggling with this, but you really are. You don’t want your kids to feel that stress. But it does trickle down.”

Philadelphia Witness Emily Edwards works part-time as a home healthcare aide earning $9 per hour. Like many Witnesses, she checks in frequently with her neighbors about how they are getting along. She said that in West Philadelphia she is constantly asked two questions: “Why were there SNAP cuts on November 1? And why didn’t anyone tell us?”

“Instead of a notification, what they get is this answering machine, once they call to check on their benefits, that says ‘due to government cuts you might not receive the same benefits,’” said Edwards, who is 29 and has a 5-year-old son.

She suggested that if Members of Congress had “pictures” to go with the numbers and statistics that usually dominate budget discussions, maybe that would help broaden some minds about what programs like SNAP mean to people.

“Give them a face with that number, and make it feel real,” Edwards told Adesina.

Adesina said that some Members who voted for cuts might be affected by stories of veterans or elderly people on SNAP, but not necessarily by stories about children.

“With children they’re not as moved,” said Adesina.

“Unbelievable,” said Boston Witness Juell Frazier, incredulous. “Unbelievable!”

A mother of two daughters, ages 4 and 8, Frazier was also forced to drop out of college in order to continue receiving TANF cash assistance. She had made the Dean’s List at Springfield College and only had two semesters remaining to obtain her Bachelors Degree in Human Services.

After the meeting with Adesina, we returned to the coffee shop and Edwards told me more about how she and her son are faring. She started her job two weeks ago and knows that she will soon face what is known as “the cliff effect”: when an increase in income triggers a sudden loss of federal assistance, leaving a person economically worse off just as they are trying to get ahead.

Edwards has been through this before, and said that when she shares her first pay stub with her caseworker she will lose her TANF cash assistance and child care assistance, and her food stamps will be cut by “more than half.”

“If I can’t afford to pay someone to watch my child, then I can’t go to work,” said Edwards. “I’ll end up losing work, and go back to having to depend on this system that’s not really helping me get ahead in life, it’s helping me stay stagnated, and it starts to become a cycle.”

Edwards shared her experiences with Representatives Fattah and McGovern.

“They just don’t give us enough time once we get that job to make the transition,” she told them.

Dr. Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, pointed to research showing that families who have a modest increase in income, and therefore lose their SNAP benefits, are more likely to experience hunger than are families who remain on SNAP.

“Just when the families are doing what they’re supposed to do, and want to do—right here we’ve got a teacher and a home health aide—they get cut off at the knees,” said Chilton. “And that’s over and above the SNAP cuts on November 1 and whatever else might happen with SNAP next.”

The conversation then turned to just that—what might happen with SNAP next.

You could feel the tension in the room about the prospect of more—and deeper—cuts, and what that would mean for the Witnesses’ families and their communities. They are already feeling the effects of the November 1 SNAP cut, which reduced the average individual benefit from $1.50 per meal to $1.40 per meal. It adds up to a reduction of $29 per month in food assistance for a family of three.

Already, the Witnesses say they are all purchasing fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. Frazier struggles to buy the higher-priced, gluten-free foods that her 4-year-old daughter needs due to food allergies. Edwards—who cut sugars out of her son’s diet when he was diagnosed with ADHD—now has to purchase more affordable processed foods and worries about how that will affect her son’s progress. And Davis—who is out of work and about to have reconstructive foot surgery—is already relying on food banks and friends more than ever before.

Now the House and Senate are negotiating over further proposed SNAP cuts of $40 billion and $4 billion, respectively. McGovern pointed out that the November 1 cuts will total $5 billion over the next year, and $11 billion through 2016.

“There should be no more cuts. My line in the sand is that we pass a Farm Bill that does not make hunger worse in this country,” said Representative McGovern. “We might have to swallow a lot of stuff we don’t like to get a good [SNAP outcome]. But do no harm is a big accomplishment here.”

He told the Witnesses that they could be “the wind at our backs, the hurricane at our backs” during these negotiations, and that over the next few months people need to be speaking out loudly and clearly for “no more cuts in SNAP.” He also said there should be protests in front of the offices of House Republicans who voted for $40 billion in SNAP cuts even though their constituents currently need food assistance.

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When the Witnesses wrapped up their final meeting it was after 6 pm. They had started the day in the early morning hours to travel to Capitol Hill, and they now had to hurry to catch a train home. They felt a sense of accomplishment.

“I think our presence was powerful today because they got to hear our stories firsthand,” said Davis. “That’s what [Camden Witnesses] was basically about—ten women with ten cameras—taking pictures about anything that needs to be improved.”

“Anything we want to see a change in,” said Timmons.

The women and men of Witnesses to Hunger will surely continue to advocate for themselves, their families, each other and their communities. But if they are to succeed in their efforts, they will just as surely need millions of people to join them—people who are currently silent, or quiet, or taking action only when it’s convenient, like by clicking a mouse.

We will only turn the tide when we value the well being of Nia, Anisa, Emily, Quanda and Juell as much as we value our own—and we’re willing to fight for it, and make that fight visible.

You can learn more about Witnesses to Hunger by attending their fifth-anniversary celebration here.

A Walmart in Ohio held a food drive for its own employees, inadvertently admitting the company doesn’t pay its workers enough for them to afford food.

‘The New Public’ on Poverty and Education

A still from ‘The New Public’

This post is co-written with Elaine Weiss.

The negative impact of poverty on a child’s educational achievement is indisputable. Whether the metric is school grades, state assessments, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the SAT—the scores of low-income children are far lower than those of their wealthier peers. The reasons for that gap—and how our nation should respond—is the subject of heated debate and is explored by filmmaker Jyllian Gunther in the award-winning documentary, The New Public.

The film is inspiring and sobering as it examines the experiences of students and teachers at the Brooklyn Community Arts & Media (BCAM) High School. BCAM is a new, small public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where one-third of the residents live below the poverty line and the graduation rate is 40 percent.

With nuance and humor, Gunther shows how poverty presents many obstacles to effective teaching and strong learning. It showcases BCAM’s ability to overcome some of those obstacles through relationship-building and teaching to students’ strengths. But it also demonstrates that no matter how dedicated and focused the teachers and leaders are, a school will too often be unable to transform its students’ academic lives.

Gunther follows BCAM’s inaugural class during its freshman year, and then returns to document its senior year as well. Several of the Bed-Stuy ninth-graders entering BCAM’s doors speak frankly of their unhappiness at their past schools. Students and parents discuss the failures in those schools to reach students, or of being kicked out or asked to leave.

We see BCAM faculty and staff grapple with how they can best overcome gaps in their students’ learning. Research suggests that those learning gaps begin prior to kindergarten and widen over subsequent years. As Kevin Greer, a veteran teacher of honors English at a large public high school in the Bronx, describes, “Kids here have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about.”

The teens also face deficits in skills that are often misnamed “non-cognitive”—like social, emotional and behavioral skills. Because we can’t measure resilience, perseverance, capacity to communicate, and appropriate interaction with peers, we tend to pay far too little attention to these qualities that researchers know contribute to academic and life success.

But BCAM educators strive to nurture these characteristics. Gunther highlights some of the school’s less orthodox approaches, such as students’ engaging in meditation practice. A social worker, Charlene Fravien, also leads the “Fly Young Women” empowerment group, where we listen in on discussions about body image and race. Fravien says the group is designed to help these students communicate more effectively—the members were selected because they are known to be “much more short-tempered—the girls you don’t mess with.”

One of the group’s participants is Lateefah. We see her quick intellect, sharp sense of humor, and leadership abilities from the outset of the film. She says her old school was bad—that the students were “uncontrollable” and so was she. BCAM seems to be helping her.

“Before I had a terrible look on life,” says Lateefah. “Now I’m not wasting my time on nothing, I’m going straight for what I need and what I want.” Yet she confides to the Fly Young Women that you can never leave your “baggage outside at the door.”

“Because there’s still gonna be that one thing in the back of your mind that’s bugging you and that piece missing from your heart,” she says.

Indeed, the “baggage” Lateefah has accumulated over the years soon returns. Despite the efforts of Fravien and supportive teachers, Lateefah finds herself once again fighting and struggling with peers.

Ninth-grader John reveals another challenge children growing up in poor households disproportionately face—maternal depression. His mother is physically present but emotionally absent. John says she suffered a series of severe seizures that forced her to stop working and has shut her in their small apartment for years.

Luckily, John is close to his warm, funny father. But that father, who works six or seven days a week and has little time to do much besides work and sleep, dies before John’s senior year. This compounds John’s struggle to come out as a gay man while also pursuing college and the financial aid he needs.

Moses enters BCAM as one of the school’s most promising new students. His mother and father push him hard to excel. Both his parents and teachers emphasize Moses’ strong aptitude, great energy, and potential. Yet, as Moses puts it, “the street” proves too strong a lure. As his enthusiasm for BCAM’s creative, arts-based approach wanes, he distances himself from teachers who want to help him. Senior year, just as he is being urged to get his college applications in order, his grades slip and his interest in school reaches new lows.

We also learn that the inaugural class has dropped from 104 students freshman year, to just sixty senior year, with thirty on track for graduation.

“I think small schools go through a wake-up call that third or fourth year and then they make adaptations,” says BCAM humanities teacher Lavie Raven. “These schools desperately need that fifth to seventh year, because when we’re measured by our first year graduates, the measurements are horrible. But the schools with the good staffs and leaders—learn.”

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The New Public successfully depicts poverty’s complex impact on education, especially at the high school level. It offers nuanced suggestions that aren’t nearly so catchy as “no excuses,” and it doesn’t suggest the existence of a silver bullet like “grit and character” or “miracle teachers.” What the film does demonstrate is that creating schools where students in high-poverty neighborhoods can thrive calls for far more than teaching to a test and punishing teachers for not obtaining mandated results.

“Inner-city school teaching is like no other job,” Greer offers. “Because you’re dealing with basic American inequalities. Our society’s problems are so enormous. And they’re all foisted upon the schools to fix them all.”

Elaine Weiss is the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, where she works with a high-level task force and coalition partners to promote a comprehensive, evidence-based set of policies to allow all children to thrive.

Aura Bogado delves into the school-to-prison pipeline in Los Angeles Public Schools.

This Week in Poverty: How to Cut Poverty in Half in Ten Years

Food Assistance Chicago

The Half in Ten campaign—launched in 2007 by the Center for American Progress, Coalition on Human Needs and Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—set an ambitious goal: to cut poverty in half over ten years. Today, it seems almost fantastical on the face of it, given the nation’s polarization and soaring political and economic inequality.

But with 200 coalition members across the nation combatting poverty, Half in Ten remains steadfast, as campaign manager Erik Stegman described at the release of its third annual report, which tracks progress towards the campaign’s ultimate goal.

“It’s an achievable goal because we’ve done it before,” said Stegman, who co-authored the report along with other contributors, including Sister Simone Campbell, who wrote the foreword. Stegman writes that the War on Poverty contributed to cutting poverty by 43 percent between 1964 and 1973, “to a historic low of 11.1 percent.”

“We know how to do it, and we can do it again,” asserts Stegman.

Half in Ten has always done an exceptional job of laying out the policy choices that are there for the taking if we want to dramatically reduce poverty. But the heart of its work lies in showing how public policy decisions intersect with the lives and experiences of real people.

So it was fitting that among the many stellar speakers who participated in the release event—including Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez; Congresswoman Barbara Lee; Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and Reverend David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World—the first speaker was Chelsey Hagy, a mother of two from southwest Virginia.

Hagy grew up in a middle-class home and enrolled in community college at age 17. She got pregnant, and the father of her child was incarcerated prior to Hagy’s giving birth. She worked two part-time jobs but couldn’t make ends meet. She turned to assistance—public housing, WIC, Medicaid and food stamps (SNAP). Her son was diagnosed with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic disorder that will require special education and medical care throughout his life.

“I found myself traveling from doctor to doctor, adding more expenses that could not be met without the assistance of these programs, especially Medicaid,” said Hagy.

She enrolled in a residential nursing program, her sights set on obtaining a job that pays a living wage. She married and had a second child, but later separated from her husband. While pursuing her degree, her sons attended Early Head Start, where the family benefitted from early childhood education, preventive healthcare and nutrition classes and parental instruction.

With two semesters left to earn her degree, Hagy’s financial aid was exhausted. She turned to a Workforce Development program where prerequisite testing and a career assessment determined she would “likely be successful in the nursing field.” The program then paid for her tuition, books, uniform and stethoscope, as well as her state board exam fees.

Hagy graduated in May and works full-time as a cardiac nurse. She works twelve-hour rotations and “nursing students [now] shadow me.” She and her children no longer need government assistance, and Hagy has remarried and purchased her first home.

“I cannot imagine where my life would be right now if it weren’t for the support and opportunities that were given to me,” she said. “If I as a single mother of two—one of whom has special needs—can do it, anyone can.”

But it is this very notion that “anyone can” that is at stake in the current public policy debate, and Half in Ten explores that in a comprehensive manner in its report. It proposes that indeed people are worth investing in so that they can succeed and contribute to society; and that our country has the wealth to ensure that those who can’t work, or can’t find work with decent wages, can obtain the services needed to escape poverty.

The report focuses not only on the 46.5 million people living in poverty, but also on the more than one in three Americans—106 million of us—who live below twice the poverty line, on less than $36,600 annually for a family of three. While these families and individuals might not officially be in poverty, they are struggling to afford the basics—food, housing, healthcare, education—and are just a single hardship away from poverty.

The report suggests that the biggest obstacles to the kind of “shared prosperity” we had in the three decades following World War II—where all incomes were lifted by an expanding economy—are slow and inequitable economic growth and a proliferation of low-wage work, all exacerbated by the sequester and austerity policies.

Not only does the United States have the most extreme economic inequality it’s seen since the 1920s, but in the past three years the top 5 percent have had income growth of more than 5 percent, while the bottom fifth has seen its income fall by .8 percent (middle-class incomes have fallen even more over this same period).

Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said at the release event that of all the factors contributing to contemporary growth in poverty, economic inequality is the most significant.

“The largest factor for increasing poverty rates over the last thirty or forty years is the increase in economic inequality,” said Bernstein. “Economic inequality added [about] 5 percentage points to the growth of poverty over this period. If the economy is growing but the growth isn’t reaching the bottom half, then you’re going to have more poverty.”

Of course, the best anti-poverty program is a job that pays a decent wage. But the report notes that the economy needs to add 8.3 million jobs to reach pre-recession employment levels, and at the current rate of growth that would take until 2018. Meanwhile, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the sequester will result in “the loss of nearly 1 million more jobs by the third quarter of 2014.”

As for decent wages, too many of the jobs in this recovery pay low wages. The report points out that more than 40 percent of job growth in 2012 occurred in low-wage sectors. Many of these jobs pay the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour—a poverty wage that leaves a full-time worker earning approximately $15,000 per year. (The tipped minimum wage is just $2.13 an hour, which results in the people who serve us our food being twice as likely to need food stamps as the general population.) If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation it would stand at $10.75 an hour; if it had kept pace with increased productivity it would be $17.19.

“We continue to work to pass an increase in the minimum wage, and you can rest assured that the president will continue to exert his leadership,” said Secretary Perez, who delivered an impassioned speech that in part celebrated the historic decision to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to homecare workers.

But when I asked whether the president would sign an executive order to give priority to federal contractors who pay a living wage, Perez offered no such assurance.

“We’re looking into a range of interventions to address the issue of poverty,” he said. “We’re looking at every tool in our arsenal.”

If we can’t take common-sense action on the sequester and wages, it’s tough to envision how we get to other smart policies recommended in the report, unless we build a broad-based movement that is visible, disruptive and ongoing—as we have seen with marriage equality and immigration reform. The report recommends creating a Pathways Back to Work Fund which would include temporary, subsidized jobs—supported by both Democratic and Republican governors—as well as summer and year-round employment opportunities for low-income youth (14 percent of young people ages 16 to 24 are neither in school nor working); investing in jobs that will rebuild and modernize our infrastructure; passing paid leave legislation so that low-income workers don’t have to choose between their paycheck—and maybe keeping their job or making rent—and caring for themselves or a sick child (only 34 percent of low-wage workers had access to paid sick leave in 2013); and expanding access to higher education and skills training—funding for the Workforce Investment Act has declined by $500 million since 2010.

But as long as wages remain low, and job growth is slow, then the safety net is going to continue to be strained—even more so if congressional (mostly, but not entirely) Republicans are successful in their efforts to cut it further. Food stamps (SNAP) kept a record 4 million people out of poverty last year, but benefits were cut last week and both the House and Senate are now deliberating further cuts in Farm Bill negotiations. The Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit lifted 9.4 million people above the poverty line in 2011, but as the report notes a budget deal only extended the expansions of these credits through 2017, while it made the Bush era tax cuts permanent for most Americans. The percentage of uninsured people fell from 15.7 percent to 15.4 percent last year, but medical out-of-pocket costs also pushed 10.6 million families into poverty in 2011, and 27 Republican governors are currently refusing Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. If all states opted into Medicaid expansion, 17 million Americans could gain health coverage. Welfare reform is still hailed by many in both parties as a success, but it resulted in cash assistance (TANF) reaching only 25 of every 100 families in poverty compared to 68 for every 100 in 1996.

“I was a food stamp recipient,” said Congresswoman Lee. “If it had not been for the safety net, and my government, and an opportunity to go to college, I never would be where I am today.”

Lee said repeatedly that there is a need for a “grassroots movement” if we are to change the conversation in Washington and make the kinds of sensible investments in people that this report outlines.

Stegman said there is a hunger for the kind of movement Lee is calling for among Half in Ten’s grassroots networks across the country.

“One of the things I hear constantly is ‘we are sick and tired of the debate as it is right now. We are sick and tired of the cuts, we don’t even know where they are coming from,’ ” he said. “Most people don’t know what sequestration is versus the last round of cuts that happened through appropriations. What they know is it’s the wrong track.”

“This January will mark fifty years since President Johnson waged a War on Poverty. We have to build on what works, but also recognize that our economy and country have undergone dramatic shifts since then, and our laws and workplaces haven’t caught up,” said Melissa Boteach, director of Half in Ten. “We can’t just get stuck fighting defensive battles, even though it’s important to oppose austerity policies. We have to show an alternative path forward, and fight for our country to invest in people.”

If you read this entire 113-page report, I guarantee that you will know more about anti-poverty policy and the necessary battles that lie ahead than most members of Congress. There is so much in the report that deserves attention that I don’t have space for: the fact that the employment rate for people with disabilities is just 17 percent—their poverty rate more than 28 percent—and that programs like Supplemental Security Income and the Earned Income Tax Credit could be strengthened to reverse these trends; that childcare assistance policies are worsening in twenty-seven states in 2012, making it harder for single mothers—who have a poverty rate of 42.5 percent—to go to work; the sequestration cut of $4.2 billion in 2013 funding for children—concentrated in the areas of education, early learning and housing—comes at a time when more than one in five children live in poverty.

But in the end, it might all come down to this: when you consider Chelsey’s story—and those of other families and individuals who are profiled throughout the report—do you think human capital is worth investing in, and that people are worth protecting from severe hardship? If so, how hard are you willing to fight for that?

Because don’t doubt for a second that it won’t require a real, sustained and hard fight to follow the kind of roadmap provided by Half in Ten in this report.

Events/Get involved

Wendy’s Founder’s Week-of-Action with Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Tell Congress to Protect SNAP

Tell the House: The time is now for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Organizing Meeting: DC Restaurant Workers organizing around increasing tipped minimum wage and expanding paid sick days for all restaurant workers. (Today, November 4, 2 pm–3:30 pm, Restaurant Opportunities Center Office, 1326 9th NW, Washington, DC 20001.)

Rally: Join Paid Sick Days for All Coalition and Respect DC as they rally to pressure DC Councilmembers to pass a bill to raise the minimum wage, tipped minimum wage, and extend access to paid sick days to all workers in the District. (Friday, November 8, 9 am, Wilson Building 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20004.)

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Clips and other resources

“Food Stamps Cut: A Bipartisan Scandal,” George Zornick

Native Americans Are Still Waiting for an Economic Recovery,” Algernon Austin

The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success,” Annie E. Casey Foundation

…States Taken Over by the GOP Have Been Quietly Screwing American Workers,” Zoë Carpenter

CHARTS: The Hidden Benefits of Food Stamps,” Christopher Cook

Microcredit for Americans,” Shaila Dewan

19 Young Activists Changing America,” Peter Dreier

What pediatricians have learned about SNAP,” Deborah Frank, MD

Ohio Governor Defies G.O.P. With Defense of Social Safety Net,” Trip Gabriel

Pennsylvania welfare department urged to improve its methods,” Kate Giammarise

Rejecting False Choices to Protect Vermont’s EITC,” Jack Hoffman

Audio: McDonald’s Tells Full-Time Employee to Apply for Welfare Benefits,” Joshua Holland

A War on the Poor,” Paul Krugman

The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011–2012,” Gordon Lafer

Will Every State Eventually Expand Medicaid?” John Light

A Letter From Bill Moyers,” Bill Moyers

Expanding Social Security Benefits for Financially Vulnerable Populations,” National Council of Women’s Organizations, Center for Community Change

The real 21st-century problem in public education,” Elaine Weiss

Quote of the week

“I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor. That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy. You know what? The very people who complain ought to ask their grandparents if they worked at the W.P.A.”
   —Republican Governor John Kasich, in The New York Times

This Week in Poverty normally posts on Friday mornings, and again at Moyers & Company. You can e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.

Greg Kaufmann wrote about the Older Americans Act —a safety net for seniors—last week.

Will a Safety Net for Seniors Win Bipartisan Support?

Senior citizens

The Older Americans Act (OAA) is one of the most important pieces of legislation that you probably never heard of or at least know very little about. You know Meals on Wheels? The OAA funds it, and also essential services for seniors like job training, caregiver support, transportation, preventive health services, and protection from abuse and financial exploitation.

This Wednesday, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, along with Republican Senator Lamar Alexander and Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, will offer a 5-year reauthorization of the legislation to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. If the legislation is to pass the Senate and the House, it will need strong bipartisan support from the Committee.

OAA programs aren’t means tested, so they serve as a safety net for many seniors living just above the poverty line, and prevent other seniors from falling deeper into poverty. The programs also save money over the long-term. One clear example of cost-savings is the Meals on Wheels program. A study by the Center for Effective Government found that for every $1 in federal spending on Meals on Wheels, there is as much as a $50 return in Medicaid savings alone. However, the program currently reaches less than 10 percent of low-income seniors who need access to meals programs.

“During this terrible recession, there has been a growing demand for meals for seniors at a time when budgets are being slashed,” Senator Sanders told me. “There is clear evidence that some of our poorest seniors are simply not getting the food they need.”

Fall prevention programs funded by the OAA also protect seniors from needing to go to the hospital or into nursing homes—where too often they spend every last dime and are then forced to turn to Medicaid. One in three seniors falls every year, and falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for people ages 65 and older. The resulting injuries are projected to cost the nation $60 billion in 2020. Research has shown that several OAA-supported programs have reduced falls by 30 to 55 percent—which saves both money and lives.

The OAA’s Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) allows very low-income seniors to get job skills while also providing community service for non-profits. Nearly 90 percent of participants live in poverty (on less than about $11,000 annually), and one-third are homeless or at risk of homelessness. While the job training helps these seniors return to the labor force and in some cases prevents homelessness, participants also perform millions of hours of community service for local organizations struggling with their own budget cuts. Howard Bedlin, vice president of public policy at the National Council of Aging, said SCSEP has “a value to states and communities estimated at over $1 billion.” But due to a lack of resources, the number of seniors served by the program has declined by 34 percent since FY 2010, and the program now has waiting lists in many cities.

All of the OAA programs have been severely underfunded, failing to keep pace with inflation and population growth for decades. Senator Sanders and eighteen cosponsors previously attempted to reauthorize the OAA with a funding increase of 12 percent over FY2010 levels, but in this political climate that proved to be a non-starter, despite the fact that the programs save money. This bill is a scaled back version of the previous legislation. It does not set a cap on current funding levels, and it leaves appropriators with the flexibility to increase funding in future years.

Other important aspects of the legislation prevent and address elder abuse. Elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation are all too common in the US and have long been overlooked. The bill directs the Administration on Aging to include training for state and local agencies on elder abuse prevention and screening, and it promotes data collection at the state level to help assess the scope of this problem. It also strengthens the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, which provides ombudsmen to serve all residents of long-term care facilities, regardless of age. These advocates address issues ranging from complaints over a scheduled wake-up time, to concerns about quality of care, or abuse. Significantly, the bill specifies that all residents must have private, unimpeded access to ombudsmen, so there are no other parties that are interfering, intimidating, or somehow preventing candid communication.

The Nation is facing a crippling postal rate hike—donate by October 31 to help us foot this $120,272 bill.

In contrast to the National Council on Aging, which has been a steady supporter of a strong OAA, one powerful advocacy voice that was missing during earlier attempts at reauthorization was AARP. Although it is late to the party, AARP is endorsing the legislation now, and its support is critical to passing a strong bipartisan bill.

If you are represented by Senators on the HELP Committee, now would be a good time to let them know that you expect strong support for the OAA—from the Committee markup on Wednesday through passage on the Senate floor—and that the legislation needs more funding.

If we truly think it’s important to respect our elders, here’s a simple way to prove it.

Greg Kaufmann has called for renewed political will to confront poverty in America. 

This Week in Poverty: No Time to Wait on a Movement

Volunteers prepare food for distribution at a food bank. (AP Images/Jim Cole)

This Friday, 48 million people—including more than 21 million children—will see their food stamp (SNAP) benefits reduced. Instead of receiving an average of a buck-fifty for a meal, individuals in need of food assistance will get about $1.40. For families of three, the cut means they will receive $29 less in food stamps every month.

Tianna Gaines-Turner recently described the impact of cuts like these in written testimony she submitted to Congressman Paul Ryan’s War on Poverty hearing: “Cutting a person’s benefits by $10, or $15, or $20 might not seem like a lot to legislators, but it would cut meals out completely for families like mine.”

Families like hers are families with two working parents earning low wages while trying to support three children. Ms. Gaines-Turner is employed by a childcare provider and her husband works the deli counter at a grocery store.

The SNAP cuts come at a time when 49 million people—about 14.5 percent of all US households—are food insecure. That means they don’t have enough money to meet their basic food needs, and don’t necessarily know where their next meal is coming from. The Institute of Medicine already demonstrated the inadequacies of the SNAP allotment for hungry families even before this cut.

What are we to make of this—the timing of the cut, the lack of discussion about it on the Hill, and the fact that it will deliver yet another blow to people who are already among the most vulnerable citizens in our nation?

It all points to the same hard truth we see time and again: when it comes to responding to the struggles of the more than one in three Americans who are living below twice the poverty line—on less than about $36,600 annually for a family of three—we prefer to look the other way. Even as the interests of low-income people and the middle-class converge—for example, the need for good jobs and fair wages, access to continuing education, a more equitable economy where 95 percent of the gains don’t go to the top 1 percent, and a safety net that is available in tough times or when jobs pay lousy wages—we still find that a SNAP cut like this can occur with hardly a whisper of protest (outside of the advocacy community) at a time when hunger is widespread.

What is most frustrating, of course, is how easily we could move in a better direction.

In 2007, when the Half in Ten campaign to cut poverty by 50 percent over ten years was launched, the Urban Institute found that implementation of just four of the campaign’s many recommendations would result in a 26 percent reduction in poverty. (At the time, there were 37 million people in poverty, so it would have meant lifting 9.5 million people out of poverty over ten years.) The four recommendations included a modest increase in the minimum wage, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit (which lifted 9.4 million people above the poverty line in 2011), and guaranteeing childcare assistance to low-income families (tough to go to work when there is no reliable and affordable place for childcare).

We didn’t move in that direction and we continue to move in the wrong direction today. Food stamps lifted a record 4 million people above the poverty line in 2012, but benefits will be cut on Friday and both the House and Senate are deliberating further cuts in Farm Bill negotiations.

Unemployment insurance (UI) lifted 1.7 million people above the poverty line in 2012. But in 2011, it lifted 2.3 million people, and 3.2 million in 2010. Arloc Sherman, senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noted that “we pulled back too quickly on unemployment insurance” and if we hadn’t “there would be a million fewer poor people today.” Instead, Sherman writes, “the number of UI recipients for every 100 unemployed workers fell from 67 in 2010 to 57 in 2011 and 48 in 2012.” Why? Because some states cut back the number of weeks people are eligible for regular, state-funded UI benefits; and Congress provided fewer weeks of federal UI benefits for long-term unemployed workers.

If we can’t even get good policy for unemployed workers in the aftermath of the Great Recession, or for hungry people at a time when there is a proliferation of low-wage work, then how in the world can we possibly expect to win on issues like investing in affordable housing, ending child hunger, or making post-secondary education available for all?

It’s time to stop bemoaning “the lack of political will” to take on poverty and focus on what we are doing to create that political will. Because no matter how great a speech someone delivers, or how compelling a study someone conducts, or how smart the talking points are for those advocating for good policy, or how many twitter storms, e-mails, or online petitions we push—there will be no significant change without a truly broad-based movement along the lines of what we are seeing with immigration reform and marriage equality.

Otherwise, expect the advocacy community to always be playing defense and the most vulnerable people to keep paying the price for it.

Get involved

Tell Congress: Protect Federal Nutrition Programs

Stop the Hunger Clock

Tell McDonalds to Stop Buying Luxury Jets Until They Pay Workers a Living Wage

Tell Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program

United for Homes: Campaign to fund the National Housing Trust Fund

Talking to Tavis

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Tavis Smiley on his show. It was a little surreal, since I’ve interviewed him a few times and found myself resisting the urge to answer his questions with questions of my own. But I enjoyed it, and I especially appreciate Tavis because he never stops talking about poverty—never. Truth be told, I kind of botched the ending because I always have so much to say about the Coalition of Immokalee (CIW) workers and I unsuccessfully tried to condense. So to learn more about CIW, please check out my last blog. Also, check out Tavis’s new four-year initiative, ENDING POVERTY: America’s Silent Spaces. (Be sure to sign up for updates at the bottom of the page.) Here is my segment with Tavis:

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Other resources

Texas Voter ID Law Discriminates Against Women, Students and Minorities,” Ari Berman

Four steps for keeping at-risk youth from engaging in the sex trade,” Meredith Dank

Oakland Workers’ Collective Matches Laborers, Employers,” Equal Voice News

U.S. Hits Record Number of Homeless Students,” First Focus

It’s Time to Bolster TANF,” Ife Floyd

TANF Cash Benefits Continued To Lose Value in 2013,” Ife Floyd and Liz Schott

Why housing policy really is education policy,” Megan Gallagher

As Our Safety Nets Get Slashed, More People Fall into Deep Poverty,” Stephanie Mencimer

Pivot Point: State Child Care Assistance Policies 2013,” National Women’s Law Center

Poor kids in schools is a poverty problem, not an education policy problem,” Austin Nichols

A Primer for Our New Mayor,” NYC Food Forum

Running In Place: Where the Middle Class and the Poor Meet,” Miles Rapoport and Jennifer Wheary

Social Security Keeps 22 Million Americans Out Of Poverty,” Paul Van de Water, Arloc Sherman and Kathy Ruffing

Paying But Not Eating: Fast Food Gets $7B in Subsidies,” Brad Wong

This Week in Poverty normally posts on Friday mornings, and again at Moyers & Company. You can e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.

Greg Kaufmann has previoulsy written about the impact of budget cuts on Middle America. 

This Week in Poverty: The Immokalee Way

Protest by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers outside a Wendy’s restaurant in New York. (Credit: Aaron Cantú)

I was thrilled to see the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) honored at the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedom Awards on Wednesday night. Having followed the organization’s work for seven years, I believe their effectiveness is unmatched, and their achievements constantly offer a reason for hope.

The CIW way is non-hierarchal, led from the grassroots, fearless and savvy—and they have defeated Goliath so many times that they can no longer be considered a David. I think many community-based and national anti-poverty organizations can learn a lot from them.

The Four Freedom Awards honor those who exemplify Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vision of democracy—“a world founded upon four essential human freedoms”—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. Past recipients include President Jimmy Carter, Senator Ted Kennedy, Studs Terkel, Barbara Ehrenreich, Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi and Carlos Fuentes. The farmworkers were introduced by Roosevelt Fellow Dorian Warren, who outlined some of CIW’s key campaigns and victories.

In 1993, the CIW was a small group of tomato industry farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, whose unflinching organizing efforts would eventually end a twenty-year decline in their poverty wages. How did they do it? Over a five-year period, they engaged in work stoppages and demonstrations, a thirty-day hunger strike and a 234-mile march from Fort Myers to Orlando, Florida.

Although they won raises of 13 to 25 percent—resulting in an increase of several million dollars annually for the community—they still earned well below the poverty line. The group realized that the real power was with the corporate buyers whose constant demand for lower tomato prices exerted significant downward pressure on farmworker wages. In 2001, the CIW launched its Campaign for Fair Food—forging an alliance between consumers and farmworkers—and initiated the first-ever national boycott of a major fast food chain: Taco Bell.

Students, people of faith, workers and community members demanded that Taco Bell pay an extra penny per pound of tomatoes, which would go directly towards workers’ wages. They also called on the corporation to take responsibility for its supply chain and only purchase from growers who signed an enforceable code of conduct that addressed human rights violations in the fields—violations such as involuntary servitude and sexual harassment.

After four years of struggle, Taco Bell agreed to the demands and called on other fast-food chains to do the same. Over the next three years, McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway all followed suit. Today, Wendy’s remains the only holdout. The CIW turned its attention to the supermarket industry and won similar agreements with Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s (Publix, Giant, Kroger and Stop & Shop still aren’t on board); in the food service provider industry, Bon Appétit Management Co., Compass Group, Aramark and Sodexo all signed fair food agreements in 2009–10.

In 2010, the Campaign for Fair Food evolved into a broader Fair Food Programa new model of social responsibility. In addition to abiding by the penny-per-pound agreement—which has resulted in over $11 million in additional earnings for workers since January 2011—corporate buyers who sign on will purchase tomatoes only from growers who sign a code of conduct drafted by workers, in consultation with the growers and buyers. There is also worker-to-worker education on the new rights, and workers monitor their own workplaces.

Under the agreement, the Fair Food Standards Council conducts regular audits, investigates complaints and monitors resolutions at the twenty-six participating growers—growers who account for 90 percent of the $650 million in revenues in the tomato industry. When major violations occur and aren’t corrected, corporations stop buying from those growers. (This model is similar to the one US retailers have refused to sign on to in the Bangladesh garment industry.) Through this system, four crew leaders with long histories of sexual harassment or labor abuse have been terminated, and supervisors at those companies were trained to address sexual harassment and other requirements under the Fair Food Program.

“With this program, the women who pick tomatoes to support their families no longer have to leave their dignity in the tomato fields,” said farmworker Nely Rodriguez, who accepted the Freedom From Want Medal along with fellow CIW members Gerardo Reyes and Greg Asbed. “Women now have a voice and a way to stop the harassment and abuse that happened for too long.”

Finally, there is the CIW’s stunning anti-slavery campaign: since 1997, the group has assisted the Department of Justice in uncovering numerous multi-state slavery operations in the Southeastern United States. This work has resulted in the liberation of more than 1,200 workers and was a major factor in the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The State Department recognized the CIW as “an independent and pressing voice as they uncover slavery rings, tap the power of the workers, and hold companies and governments accountable.” Now, with the Fair Food Program and the severe financial consequences for growers that are imposed when forced labor is discovered, Florida has evolved from what one federal prosecutor described as “ground zero for modern-day slavery” to having no cases of slavery over the past three years.

Asbed spoke of the special significance of the Freedom from Want Medal in the context of the organization’s history.

“Twenty years ago when we began organizing, Immokalee was a town defined by violence,” he said. “Violence against women, beatings in the fields, modern-day slavery—it was a brutal and unforgiving place.”

The farmworkers began to gather every week in a room at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in town. They would pass around the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the preamble of which included FDR’s Four Freedoms.

“This book gave us hope that a better world, a more humane world, was in fact possible,” said Asbed. “[It] gave us the strength we needed to fight to make that world real. So being here today feels a bit like coming home, like our journey has come full circle.”

It’s a journey that shows us what it means to work directly—from the grassroots—with those most affected by poverty; what it means to set a seemingly unreachable bar and persevere; and what it means to understand your opposition and find new ways to challenge it.

Asbed insisted that the CIW’s “work has only just begun.”

“Our work is not done until all farmworkers live free from want,” he said. “Until all farmworkers live free from fear; and until all farmworkers live free to enjoy the dignified life they deserve for the hard work they do.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Get involved

Tell Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program

Tell Publix to join the Fair Food Program

Stop the Hunger Clock: On November 1, all 48 million low-income Americans who currently need food assistance will see a cut in their benefits—an average cut of $29 per month. (The average benefit is currently just $1.50 per person, per meal). Take action to stop the cut.

United for Homes: Campaign to fund the National Housing Trust Fund

Clips and other resources

Sister Simone Reflects on the Faithful March,” BillMoyers.com Staff

Another N.C. threat to program for poor,” The Charlotte Observer

What You Can Get For The Price Of A Shutdown,” Bryce Covert

Seeking Shelter: The Experiences and Unmet Needs of LGBT Homeless Youth,” Andrew Cray, Katie Miller and Laura Durso

La. Group Works to Reduce ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’,” Equal Voice News

This map shows where the world’s 30 million slaves live. There are 60,000 in the U.S.,” Max Fisher

Let’s Treat Housing as a Health Issue,” Jeff Foreman

Cancer survivors in rural areas often skip care due to costs,” HealthDay News (via Rural Assistance Center)

In Washington State, Home of Highest Minimum Wage, a City Aims Higher,” Kirk Johnson and Steven Greenhouse

Study: Poor children are now the majority in American public schools in South, West,” Lyndsey Layton

Health of rural communities threatened by loss of grocery stores,” Jim McLean (via Rural Assistance Center)

Not a Dentist: Is a ‘Dental Therapist’ the Solution?” Michael Mello

Low Wage Employers Cost American Families a Quarter Trillion Dollars,” Alan Pyke

What would Milton Friedman think of food stamps? Brace yourselves, conservatives,” Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach

Data Show Critical Role of Head Start in the Lives of Poor Children and Their Families,” Stephanie Schmit

Separate Spaces, Risky Places: A Price the Nation Can’t Afford,” Brian Smedley

Nine Facts That Prove Disability Insurance Isn’t A Giant Boondoggle,” Rebecca Vallas and Shawn Fremstad

Nothing Ted Cruz Said About the ACA Today Is True,” George Zornick

Vital statistics

US poverty (less than $23,492 for a family of four): 46.5 million people, 15 percent.

African-American poverty rate: 27.2 percent.

Hispanic poverty rate: 25.6 percent.

White poverty rate: 9.7 percent.

People with disabilities: 28 percent.

Poorest age group: children, 34.6 percent of all people in poverty are children.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 21.8 percent, including 38 percent of African-American children, 34 percent of Latino children, and 12 percent of white children.

Poverty rate among families with children headed by single mothers: 40.9 percent.

Gender gap: Women 31 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Deep poverty (less than $9,142 for a family of three): 20.4 million people, one in fifteen Americans, nearly 10 percent of all children, up from 12.6 million in 2000—an increase of 59 percent.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, approximately one in three Americans.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Federal minimum wage: $7.25 ($2.13 for tipped workers)

Federal minimum wage if indexed to inflation since 1968: $10.59.

Federal minimum wage if it kept pace with productivity gains: $18.72.

Hourly wage needed to lift a family of four above poverty line, 2011: $11.06

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996: 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2011: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2011: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Number of people 65 or older kept out of poverty by Social Security: 15.3 million

Quote of the week

“Somewhere we have heard that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.… Today, for first the first time in the history of the south, this dream is coming true for farmworkers in Florida’s agriculture. For the first time, we have a place at the table. In our struggle for better wages and working conditions, we are confident that this recognition will help us to arrive to the day in which our dreams will be made fully real.”
   — Gerardo Reyes, farmworker, accepting Freedom from Want Medal on behalf of the CIW

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again at Moyers & Company. You can e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.

In last week’s report on poverty, Greg Kaufmann described how defunding Obamacare would hurt the poor.

Praying for Broken Hearts in the GOP

An interfaith group of Americans sings prayers for reconciliation in Washington, DC.

Yesterday in the Canon House Office Building rotunda on Capitol Hill, Rabbi David Shneyer led an interfaith group of approximately 150 clergy leaders, locked-out workers, and people of faith, in song.

“Of love and justice I will sing,” sang the rabbi, playing a guitar and riffing off of Psalm 101.

As the others joined in, their voices rang out powerfully and could be heard clearly a floor below.

The group had gathered to participate in an action organized by Faith in Public Life and the Washington Interreligious Staff Community. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Unitarians and others marched on the offices of key Republican Members—including GOP Leadership—and urged a vote to immediately end the shutdown and to raise the debt ceiling without preconditions. Petitions with over 32,000 signatures were simultaneously delivered to members’ home district offices around the country.

When the song ended, Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, offered a prayer: “It is the common good that is the way forward for our nation…. And so let us pray for their courage that they can act on behalf of all of our people. And may our walking these halls, and praying with Congress, be the bridge that you need for healing and for some sanity in caring for all.”

The group then began its procession while singing “Amazing Grace” and other hymns. Police officers quickly told them to keep their volume low and stay to the sides of the corridors, or risk arrest. The group complied. It wasn’t that they feared arrest—many of these faith leaders have engaged in civil disobedience in the past—but that wasn’t their mission on Tuesday.

“The softer tone actually made it feel like a pilgrimage,” said Rabbi Shneyer, director of the Am Kolel Jewish Renewal Community. “Like a witnessing.”

The group divided in two so there would be sufficient time to visit congressional offices in the Cannon, Rayburn and Longworth buildings. When Sr. Simone arrived with her delegation at Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan’s office door they were greeted by staffer Joyce Meyer.

Good to see you again,” said Meyer to Sr. Simone.

Sr. Simone told Meyer that they had come to pray that Representative Ryan “has the courage and insight to do the work that needs to be done to care for the common good.”

“We have furloughed workers who are with us,” she said.“This is not just about numbers, this is about people. Congressman Ryan, I know, understands that. We pray that his heart is broken by it so that he will act courageously.”

One of the participating workers was Alex Vasquez, a food worker at the Smithsonian, who said in a released statement, “Before the shutdown I was struggling to support my unemployed father and little sister. Now I’ve gone from low wages to no wages. Tea Party Republicans need to stop these political games.”

While Meyer was polite and told the marchers that she appreciated what they had to say, other staffers indicated that their bosses share the marchers’ urgency to end the shutdown.

According to one clergy member invited into the office of Congressman Dave Joyce of Ohio, a staffer said that the representative had a “strong desire to end the shutdown [and] knows that people are hurting.” A staffer for Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf distributed copies of a recent floor statement in which the congressman said, “For those of us who think Obamacare is a disaster…its future will not be decided by shutting or opening the government.”

As the meetings drew to an end, Sr. Simone shared that she “had been feeling a little discouraged, but coming together in faith makes me think, ‘Yes, there is a way forward in this desert time.’”

The group closed by singing “We Are Marching,” and as they did, Reverend Cathy Rion Starr of All Souls Church Unitarian offered these impromptu remarks: “We are the changemakers. It is us, and those we are connected to in our congregations and communities, and we need to keep coming back and forth and back and forth. This is the way that we walk in the light of God, in the light of life, in the light of love. So let us keep marching together.”

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So what is next for these faith leaders and the marchers? What about the fact that so many of the Republicans who have shut down the government and are willing to default already consider themselves people of deep faith?

“It is true that some think they are people of faith, but it seems to me that they don’t know the struggle of the working poor people,” Sr. Simone told me. “They have a head for figures but not a heart for the people. Maybe faith for them is more research and theory and less the story of people.”

“Perhaps the faith community needs to engage with Congress more often and have serious discussions [about] morality and ethics,” said Rabbi Shneyer. “Maybe that would help Congresspeople and staffers open their hearts to surveying the people in a more just and compassionate way.”

Greg Kaufmann previously blogged about what Republican efforts to defund Obamacare mean for impoverished Americans.

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